Coronavirus: Why Nigeria's rice handouts aren't going down well

Jollof rice
Jollof rice

Thousands of bags of rice given by Nigeria’s federal government as handouts during the coronavirus lockdown has got many people all steamed up.

Some states have alleged that the bags of rice sent to them were expired and not fit for consumption.

President Muhammadu Buhari last month ordered the customs service to distribute confiscated bags of rice to the needy to help cushion the effects of a lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus.

But the gift has not gone down well with some states in the south-west of the country, who received the first batch of the rice.

Oyo state, which is governed by the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has been the most vocal about the quality of the rice and wrote a letter to the customs service of its intention to return the “weevil-infested” rice.

On Wednesday it made good that threat by abandoning two trucks of 1,800 bags of the rice at the gates of the customs service after officials refused to accept them.

In Ondo state, where the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party is in charge, officials said some of the bags contained expired rice which were not fit for human consumption but ruled out returning them.

But the Nigeria Customs Service has denied giving out expired rice and said it was embarrassed by the allegations of the Oyo state government.

“The warehouse had no signs of weevils, neither were there signs of weevils on the loaders or on the trucks under the scorching sun,” it said in a statement.

Most Nigerians stocked up on food when the government announced a lockdown in three states of the country
Most Nigerians stocked up on food when the government announced a lockdown in three states of the country

The controversy was further stoked by the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Sadiya Farouq, whose ministry in in charge of distributing the rice.

She said the bags of rice had been tested by the country’s agency for food and drugs control – Nafdac.

But the head of Nafdac, Mojisola Adeyeye, said her agency was not invited “to test the rice” distributed to Oyo state as claimed by the minister.

Where did the rice come from?

Thousands of bags of rice have been at the warehouses of the customs service for months after they were seized from smugglers trying to get the rice into Nigeria.

And it is from this stockpile the service released 46,000 metric tons of rice for distribution to the states following the president’s order.

Nigeria’s land borders were closed in August last year to enforce a ban on importation of certain products – including rice, into the country.

And it seems it is not only people in the south-west who have issues with the rice.

This twitter user posted a video of a bag of “Covid-19 Palliative” rice given to residents by authorities in the capital Abuja, describing them as “poisonous and expired”.

Is it the first time such a thing has happened?

There is a history of government officials confirming that bags of rice seized by the customs service are expired and not fit for consumption.

In October last year, the Comptroller General of Nigeria Customs Service, Hameed Ali, said that Nigerians were eating expired foreign rice re-bagged and smuggled into the country.

“They do that in Benin Republic, they do that on the high sea. They change that bag and then give it a new date and that’s what we consume here,” he said.

Presidential aide Lauretta Onochie also posted this video of thousands of bags of seized rice which she said had expired.

“We don’t know when it was harvested. We don’t know the chemicals used to preserve them,” she tweeted.

Cooked rice, especially Nigeria’s famous spicy jollof, is a staple in the country and the raw grains have been a key part of relief aid distributed by individuals and organisations during the lockdown.

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Banner image reading ‘more about coronavirus’

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